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Nikkei Heritage

The Good Fight: Betty Kano and Nina Fallenbaum

Last summer, soon after President Bush declared the war against Iraq “officially over,” I spoke with mother and daughter activists Betty Kano and Nina Kahori Fallenbaum. I interviewed Betty and Nina with the intention of presenting a perspective on “the war against war.” Instead, I was presented with the power of love.

Artist Betty Kano’s activist days go back to the Vietnam War and Free speech Movement. Though semi-retired, she continues to work as an artist, curator, educator, arts administrator, organizer and activist. All this while discovering her Okinawan roots through drum dancing and continuing to pursue her painting. Betty’s daughter, Nina K. Fallenbaum, is a volunteer with the Tule Lake Pilgrimage Committee.

Nina and Betty. Courtesy B. Kano and N. Fallenbaum

Nikkei Heritage: Well, the war is officially over, even though there’s an ongoing occupation in Iraq. So my question is, is the war on war ever over?

Kano: Well, it’s interesting, because I think the war is escalating. The situation in Najaf puts it in a whole new realm in Iraq. The repression of protest is so blatant. The media is starting to look questionable, partly because the war in Iraq is going poorly, that they’re pedaling backwards, trying to reposition themselves. And the media just loves to say nobody was coming out to say “no.” According to a book Nina gave me, on February 15, 2003, the world saw the biggest demonstrations that had ever taken place. 30 million or so people protested in more than 100 nations around the world against the imminent war on Iraq. A lot of people are very conscious of what the problems are and their positions, whether they’re disengaged or alienated or whether they’re committed or passionate.

But the opposition, the war machinery, is very, very big and very powerful. So we really are in a position of being driven to our last ditch effort. That’s what I think. The last ditch effort is not really necessarily about fighting against war. It may be doing what you want to do in life. It may be making a statement for what is precious in order to make sure that that survives.

NH: It’s almost a spiritual movement. If you can’t trust the political leaders now where do you turn to? Then it becomes an internal struggle to find your position.

Kano: It’s what you do when you don’t have very much time left. I think of it as pre-apocalyptic.

Fallenbaum: I was taught by a Muslim friend the true meaning of the word “jihad.” People often say “jihad” means holy war or religious war, but it’s really not the case. She told me that a jihad is a war between good and evil and it can occur even inside yourself. Buddhism also refers to that, your earthly self or your spiritual self. Having studied the legacy of what the war did to us as Japanese people on both sides of the Pacific, I can’t imagine how humankind can accept that happening to any more people. And yet my own government is perpetuating it, right now as we speak. That’s something as Japanese Americans we have special kinship to, the Iraqis right now with what they’re going through.

NH: Is violence ever justified?

Kano: Well, I’ll jump in there. I heard a speech by Harry Belafonte when he was given an award by Global Exchange recently. He said at this point in time, he thinks that the real effective opposition to the war is going to cost some lives. And he meant it in the sense of people putting their lives on the line. It’s not in Iraq where the lives are already being taken, but lives here that are going to have to confront the state and that may result in violence. Well, that’s what we may need to do.

Fallenbaum: I’ve kind of changed my feelings on this in the last couple of years. I used to feel that violence was sometimes justified. I read a lot of Malcolm X and my first introduction to activism was going to protests and I felt like, well if it has to come to that, it has to come to that, [when you take action against] a police state.

Then I spent two years in Japan and traveled around Asia, learning more about Buddhism and meditation. I really changed my activist feelings. I started to feel that the more strong and ruthless approach is peace. That peace is actually more powerful and unforgiving and will crush oppression more than violence.

I didn’t understand that [when I lived] in the US, [where] peace is looked down upon as weakness. We live in a society that values the Hummer and Viagra, fast food and go-go-go and bigger muscles. Anything of violence is slapped on the back and appreciated. To be in Asia, where in many traditional cultures (and I’m sure in a lot of indigenous cultures all through the world) different qualities are seen as strong—it changed my mindset. I saw that to be peaceful, to feel real peace towards each other as humans, that’s the strongest relationship you can have. If your goal is a peaceful life, if your goal is a happy life, then how can violence ever get you there?

NH: I’d like to talk about your individual protest efforts and peace work.

Fallenbaum: I realize how blessed I’ve been to grow up in the so-called “movement,” where a lot of my childhood was spent at protests—drawing banners, serving tea at meetings, calling people, doing mailing lists. As a business owner, now I realize what a blessing that is because those are the building blocks of organizing people, all those little tasks.

Also, I was privileged to see all the passion that goes into it, the love. I’ve gone on to work with a lot of other activist groups and I have to say I’m glad I had such a good beginning. Because there are a lot of cynical, jaded people, unhappy people out there, and I’m glad that I was able to begin with people that were enthusiastic, full of love and full of hope. That’s the best of what the peace movement can offer, is people who just want to give all their love to making the world better. You know, that’s the ideal.

My mom is very politically active, my dad comes from a Democrat activist family and even my grandfather, not by blood but by marriage, was a big Democratic supporter. He used to register voters and new immigrants in Los Angeles. I used to go around with him with a clipboard. I realize how blessed I was because it gave me an optimism, that is precious to me: a higher standard of how life could be. I realize now that a lot of people are taught to just be happy with a paycheck, a home and a couple kids and whatever. I feel that I was raised to reach for so much more. At the very least, to reach for that for everyone in the world.

Kano: The thing [about] activism, besides the optimism, is a sense of efficacy. A person does have power in their lives to affect change. One big example for me was participation in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. Activism around the anti-apartheid movement sometimes involved a few people, a handful, a dozen or five, every week for two years or so, carrying around picket signs, and in the long run it really became a part of a big effort that toppled apartheid in South Africa and freed Nelson Mandela. So I think that activism has that way of directing one’s hopelessness into hope. It’s effective.

NH: So, you led right into my next question, which is about growing up in an activist household. It’s obvious that you were together as a family, as a unit, so to rebel would be to be apathetic?

Fallenbaum: Yeah. I maybe had regular spats with my parents that any kid does, but I could never dispute that they were sincere about what they were trying to do and that their goal was right. So that’s not even an option. I have different tactics and choose a different life maybe than they did—

NH: But the philosophy is the same?

Fallenbaum: Yeah. I mean, why would I throw that away? If it’s what my mom said, about activism making you more empowered as a person, even personally, why would I throw that away to become disempowered? How stupid is that?

A lot of parents who are activists say to me, “Oh we want to raise our kid in an activist household. My kid is 10 or 15 and I want them to become a social activist,” or “I’m kind of worried that they don’t care about what’s going on in the world,” or something.

And I’m like, well, it’s not that hard, just don’t shield them from it. The world is full of truth everywhere, but these poor kids are being locked up in the suburbs somewhere, being fed Nickelodeon. How can they care if their parents were on the front lines in the ‘60s, if they aren’t even being exposed to the truth now? You can’t blame them for not caring . . .

There were the hard parts, too, really hard parts. I remember we went and saw the movie “Cry Freedom” when I was pretty young, like only seven or eight years old. It’s a really violent movie and it shows the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. They were shooting students as they were running away. I’ll never forget coming out of it, I think with my dad, in downtown Berkeley. I was really shook up and I had bad dreams. I was really disturbed. Someone, I think maybe my grandparents, even criticized my parents: “You shouldn’t have taken her to see it.”

But I don’t regret to this day that I saw it. I thought, if I’m having one bad dream in Berkeley, California, what about a child in South Africa? How can he sleep? I never had my life at risk, at least. That [movie] ,hurt me a lot, but maybe that hurt made me feel more passionate and want to change those conditions or open my heart even more.

So I think to grow up in an activist household is the best because it’s the closest to truth. There’s no time for lots of secrets or people abusing each other or all kinds of things if you’re trying to change the world. You gotta start at home. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for things that poisons families.

NH: I think it’s wonderful. (to Betty) You must be very proud!

Kano: (laughs) I am! I’m prouder by the minute!

Fallenbaum: I feel so strongly how all these precious people in the USA, we’re really on a rocky ship, and me and the Mexican immigrant in San Diego and the Wal-Mart mom in Kansas and even the devilish legislator in Washington DC, unfortunately we’re all together. We all end up sharing all of the same habits because of our living here in the US. So it’s like we’re altogether going to turn the wheel and change how we’re going. Somehow activists and people who are raising their kids in activism are then more ready to jump in quicker.

NH: Because they have something worth fighting for. I think when a child is taught that, it doesn’t even have to be active activism.

Kano: It’s more habit.

NH: Yes. It just becomes part of your life.

Fallenbaum: It’s following the principles, whatever you subscribe to. When we’re raised in activism it opens us up to anything else. It imbues us with a flexibility to respond to the changing times. Like for instance, I was raised in a home that was really interested in economic justice and racial justice and ending apartheid, ending US wrong foreign policies. But then I grew up and become more interested in environmentalism and childhood education, revisionist history. So many other issues that weren’t necessarily in my family but because my parents raised me with an openness to what needs to be done, then I could address what came across my plate in my era.

Kano: What needs to be done now.

NH: It’s holistic isn’t it? It’s all intertwined it’s all integrated.

Kano: It is.

NH: I mean how could you oppose war and not oppose racism?

Fallenbaum: Exactly, and that’s so hard for so many people to see. So much about activism is so static and the number one problem that people will say about activism is “Oh, we can’t all get together or we can’t all agree, we have all these groups fighting each other.” There’s often so much factionalism within social change movements that holds us back. I think that the more young people that we rear with just a desire for change, they’ll be able to do it.


NH: Is there anything that you disagree about, in terms of approach or political agenda?

Kano: Sometimes we disagree. We have a difference of opinion, for esample.

Fallenbaum: Well, like different specialties, as opposed to “disagreeing.”

NH: Then, you’re just covering different ground?

Fallenbaum: That’s it.

Kano: Yeah. We talk things over. So when we have a disagreement, I think that we do somehow resolve or at least think about the source of what that disagreement is about.

NH: So it’s more of a discussion.

Fallenbaum: I have to say that while my parents and their generation laid the foundation, and I’m glad we had that structure, there’s a crucial element that sometimes people forget in contemporary activism, which is humanity. Let’s talk about our differences together. Let’s assume we’re on the same side, first. Let’s take the time to have fun together. Or, let’s take the time to listen to each other’s personal problems too.

That’s what the conservative right has a corner on. They provide a lifestyle in addition to a cause. They provide a false lifestyle because it’s based on oppression, but it’s a lifestyle nonetheless, for the fundamentalist, Christian, or right wing, or women haters, whatever. Whereas many people on the left of activism are so hard-line. It’s like we forget we’re people: people fall in love, people get mad at each other.

NH: It’s like building a new ‘good ol’ boy’ network around golf; people on the right can bond like that. Whereas on the left you are very disenfranchised and you’re competing for funding.

Fallenbaum: Yeah, competing for funding, going to meetings, accepting those stupid clauses put on us by foundations or the mainstream media, or whatever.

The way I was raised is, you finish the meeting and then go to dinner together. Let’s have a good time and let’s know each other’s kids and grow up together. That’s when you’re forming a community. Otherwise, you’re just signing on a piece of paper. That really isn’t community and that’s not really going to lead to peace, because it’s a pretty flimsy peace, plus it’s not fun. Nobody likes it.

NH: It has to be fun.

Fallenbaum: Yeah, and there’s no reason why it can’t be. And that’s partially the reason why hip hop came about because hip hop was about people struggling but [saying]: ‘Let’s enjoy, let’s take a day off and party so we can go back and fight the other 29 days.” That’s so much of the feeling behind hip hop and that’s why I was attracted to it. So in asking about differences, I would never do anything to undermine what my mother is struggling for.

Kano: Well, I have a little bit of contribution to make on this. I have found, really a lot to my surprise, that I am following Nina.

NH: (to Nina) Did you know this?

Fallenbaum: No.

Kano: I know you didn’t. Its funny when it happened, it’s almost invisible but it did happen, like Tule Lake Pilgrimage. She found Tule Lake Pilgrimage on her own. Maybe I’d heard about them, but I didn’t relate. I have to admit that I felt estranged in some ways from the Japanese American community. I didn’t grow up with the community because my father was a student and we traveled around so we didn’t go to the same churches. And that church-going community, Buddhist or Christian, is pretty strong in Japanese America.

But Nina did start getting involved with Tule Lake Pilgrimage. Then when I went, I was so surprised that the community of people, Nikkei and others . . . It didn’t feel like these closed community things of my childhood. And that helped me become much more connected to the Nikkei world and causes and reality. And with the history of internment, which I knew more from an intellectual level. Even though my grandparents and uncles and aunts who were here in the US were interned, my mother was in Japan and I was born in Japan, so there was even a feeling of separation on that, whereas at Tule Lake Pilgrimage it was all connected. There are even people from Japan who didn’t have any relation to Japanese Americans before who are learning about Japanese American history this way and becoming connected too.

The internment and this whole investigatory approach to the Japanese American community is something that really comes from Nina. I’ve been to four pilgrimages where Nina was part of the organizing team and each one has been such an important part of my contemporary experience. I also was exposed at that time to Okinawan music at one of the pilgrimages, then came to find that it means so much to me personally too. It’s really been sort of a wellspring.

Another thing I would not have gone to if Nina hadn’t been there is a hip hop [concert]. I mean, really, it was just not my choice.

Fallenbaum: “It gives me a headache,” is what she used to say.

Kano: When Nina was in a good mood she would say “Mom, listen to this.” And I would say OK. And then I’d try to figure it out.

NH: My son said the same thing. So I would read the lyrics, which are pretty empowering.

Kano: I know! I went to a few concerts and the kids are really trying to put it out. I was so impressed. That opened the door for me. It’s a part of the movement. It’s a worldwide consciousness. And it covers a lot internationally. It also has its basis in African sources, which makes it really transmutable, I think.

Nina and Betty with Betty's parents and sister, Susan. Courtesy B. Kano and N. Fallenbaum

*This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage Vol. XVII, no.2 (Fall 2005), a journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society. The text was slightly edited in April 2012.

© 2005 National Japanese American Historical Society

activism daughter family mother Nina Kahori Fallenbaum Tule Lake Pilgrimage

About this series

This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

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